In a piece published by the BBC back in 2017, journalist David Farley claimed that “Portuguese cuisine may be the most influential cuisine on the planet”. As biased towards Portuguese cuisine as we are, we’re still surprised by such a bold declaration! The background behind this statement is connected with the subject we’re about to explore in today's article: the history of Portuguese peixinhos da horta and the evolution of Japanese tempura (天ぷら).
It was the year of 1543 when the Portuguese reached Japan, being the first Europeans to make it as far East. After arriving on the island of Tanegashima, the Portuguese influence quickly spread across the Japanese territory, and translated into the introduction of novelty items like wool, silk and cotton textiles, but also cultural aspects such as food and religion.
Even though in 1543 three Portuguese merchants ended up in Tanegashima by chance, in 1548 the first planned European expedition returned to Japanese lands, now with a studied action plan. Jesuit priest Francis Xavier, who was until then in Portuguese dominated Goa in India, was sent to Japan to spread Christianity. If you are curious to learn more about the influence of Jesuit missionaries in Japan, we recommend watching the movie “Silence” by Martin Scorsese.
In parallel, numerous Portuguese traders were taken to Japan, entering via the city of Nagasaki to establish commercial connections, and so Western habits kept spreading across Japan. After an initial boom that resulted in a lot of Japan’s inhabitants adopting Christianity, the religion was eventually banned by the Japanese government in 1641. As such, the Portuguese didn’t last on site for even a complete century, but their influence in Japan persisted and kept mutating for years to come.
Even though tempura is internationally recognized as a typical Japanese dish, its origins date back to the arrival of the Portuguese in Japan in the 16th century. When the Portuguese introduced catholicism in Japan, certain days of fasting were observed by the followers of this new faith. Tempora is the Latin term that refers to these fasting periods, and which eventually evolved into the name tempura. For the catholic church fasting is not taken as literally as for instance amongst Muslims. It’s not about avoiding food and beverages all together, it is about the prohibition of eating meat on observed days. One of the ways of making vegetables more filling is to dip them in batter and deep-fry them, and so the tempura we know today as a cooking technique and dish became a go-to dish on abstinence days.
In Portugal, battering and deep-frying was usually something done with green runner beans, which is a dish called peixinhos da horta. One of the very few traditional vegetarian Portuguese dishes actually translates into “little fishes from the vegetable garden” because of their aesthetic similarity with deep-fried tiny fish. With the Portuguese arrival to Japan, it is very easy to trace a link between peixinhos da horta and tempura, but we could dip deeper and find more complex multicultural connections. As the Portuguese had arrived in India already a few years before making it to Japan, some lines of thought have also studied the possibility of peixinhos da horta being Portugal’s take on Indian pakoras, which are vegetable fritters prepared with chickpea flour:
So, if we take this into consideration, even though there are some noticeable differences among all these fritters, tempura would then be an evolution of Indian pakoras, via Portuguese peixinhos da horta. At the end of the day, we do not know with certainty the origin of peixinhos da horta and all we do know for sure is that they did already exist in 1543. While the clear origins of the popular Portuguese fritters are unknown, there’s no doubt that centuries ago and still today people tend to love deep-fried foods and so the habit of eating tempura was easily adopted.
If the Portuguese brought tempura into Japan, there’s no denying that the Japanese put their own spin on it and took it to the next level, applying this cooking method not only to vegetables, but also seafood, including different ingredients like panko breadcrumbs in the batter recipe, and pairing the fritters with umami-packed dipping sauces. Already in the 18th century tempura was one of the most popular street foods across Japan, and this is exactly when the initial recipe suffered the most changes until it became what we can these days taste in Japanese menus around the world. Today, tempura is one of the most requested Japanese appetizers worldwide and, in Japan, there are even tempura specialized restaurants which go by the name tenpura-ya.
If you are surprised how the Portuguese are behind tempura, you’ll be amazed to know that Portuguese cuisine has had a tremendous influence on other Japanese staples, from vinegary fish nanbanzuke which derives from Portuguese escabeche sauce, to kasutera or castella cake, pictured here, which with time unfolded from the base recipe of pão-de-ló, or Portuguese sponge cake.
Besides the influence on Japanese food, the Portuguese had an impact on different world cuisines. Just to name one popular example: think of Indian vindaloo curry from Goa, which evolved from Portuguese vinha d’alhos, a wine and garlic marinade for meat. But we believe that, more than being such an influential cuisine, as the BBC journalist would stress in his article, it was Portuguese trade that made all the difference, so Portuguese commerce was more significant than Portuguese cuisine per se. Thanks to the age of explorations, the phenomena which we now know as globalization started and, with it, came the international trade of ingredients and the fusion of cuisines.
Best places to eat peixinhos da horta in Lisbon
So now that you know that Japanese tempura evolved from Portuguese battered and deep-fried green beans, it’s time to try the popular Portuguese dish. You can eat peixinhos da horta as a petisco, that is as a snack or appetizer, or a little less frequently as a main meal most commonly served with a side dish such as arroz de tomate, that is, a saucy tomato rice.
When you travel to Lisbon, these are some of the best restaurants you can visit to try peixinhos da horta:
Cantinho do Avillez
Jose Avillez is one of the most important names in contemporary Portuguese cooking. Besides his double Michelin starred Belcanto and a few other restaurants, the chef opened Cantinho do Avillez in 20211 and peixinhos da horta have been a part of the menu ever since. At Cantinho do Avillez you’ll find peixinhos da horta which are considerably crunchier than in most Lisbon restaurants, beautifully paired with a chilled tartar sauce.
📍In Chiado: Rua Duques de Bragança 7, 1200-162 Lisbon
📍In Parque das Nações: Rua do Bojador 55, 1990-048 Lisbon
This traditional Portuguese restaurant has been open for over four decades, initially in the happening neighborhood of Bairro Alto and, in more recent years, in the more hip Time Out Market. Pap'Açôrda was one of the most influential restaurants in the Lisbon dining scene back in the 80s and part of the 90s and Chef Manuel Brandão, who has been working here since she was 18, has reached a nearly legendary status. Peixinhos da horta is one of the most requested appetizers at Pap'Açôrda. Served straight up, with no sauce, because they are so good on their own that they need no extra dressings.
📍Inside Time Out Market: Av. 24 de Julho 49, 1200-479 Lisbon
Coelho da Rocha
While not being one of the most visited neighborhoods by travelers who come to Lisbon, there’s no denial that Campo de Ourique is full of foodie gems that gourmands should take their time to explore and savor. Restaurante Coelha da Rocha is one of them, and if you get to sit by the long counter, you can even see how the cooks go about preparing what you’re about to taste. Amongst the many Portuguese petiscos they serve, with particular focus to recipes from the Alentejo region, Coelho da Rocha serves peixinhos da horta with tartar sauce, which are to die for.
📍Rua Coelho da Rocha 104, 1350-075 Lisbon
This old school Lisbon eatery specializes in down to earth Portuguese food at fair prices, something not to be taken for granted these days in the trendy neighborhood of Príncipe Real where Tascardoso has had its doors open for more than three decades already. Don’t be surprised if you hear more than one Lisboeta claim that Tascardoso has the best peixinhos da horta in Lisbon. They sure are up there amongst the big names of Portuguese petiscos, so we recommend you pay them a visit and go make your own conclusions!
📍Rua de O Século 242, 1250-095 Lisbon
If you are a vegan eager to try Portuguese flavors, don’t worry, as O Gambuzino serves incredible plant based peixinhos da horta, with a rich herby sauce. Golden crispy and taken to the next level by the creaminess of the dip, you will not miss the eggs at O Gambuzino’s cruelty free peixinhos da horta.
📍Rua dos Anjos 5A, 1150-032 Lisbon
Quick recipe for Portuguese peixinhos da horta
Can’t wait to travel to Portugal to try authentic peixinhos da horta? Don’t worry! Before you even visit us here at Cooking Lisbon to learn how to cook typical Portuguese tapas, we can show you how to whip up a quick recipe at home, with easy to source ingredients.
🍴 Ingredients for peixinhos da horta (serves 4 as a snack):
400g runner beans
75g all purpose flour
75g rice flour
100ml beer (if you don’t want to use alcohol, substitute for sparkling water)
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
Neutral vegetable oil for frying
Wash the runner beans and remove the fibrous thread on the sides. Cut them lengthwise and briefly boil them in salted water for just about 3 minutes. Drain and allow to cool down.